Nigel Dickinson, a British documentary photographer and photojournalist working for more than 30 years, is a concerned photographer. If commitment has always been an important issue in the field of documentary photography and continues to be, today the democratization of photography and omnipresence of new digital technologies challenge this definition.
What we can see in Nigel Dickinson’s photographs is the result of what “comes from [his] own commitment to struggle, resistance, identity and culture”. From his early work in the eighties and nineties dedicated to the struggle of the Road Protesters, the indigenous communities and the environmental problems until his more recent coverage of identity and self-determination, his work is defined by personal convictions. By deciding to meaningfully use his camera, he engaged, as many other photographers before, in the choice of useful and powerful photography. Let’s see what it means -and costs- to be a socially engaged photographer.
Flashes and Lenses Serving One’s Convictions and Talk about the World
In the 70s and 80s, engaged press photography is perfectly represented by photographs such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Raymond Depardon or Robert Capra. These photographers that we can define as “humanists”, left a strong heritage in the field of photography and gave a new perspective to this discipline: the philosophy of commitment.
To help them in their task, committed photographers have a very effective tool: their camera. The images they allow to create are a powerful weapon, which can easily touch people’s hearts. As a popular saying goes “a picture is worth more than a thousand words.”
“What I do is to give them a voice”
Examples of photographs with a strong impact are often found in the news. Wars, conflicts, poverty, environmental problems, tragedies,… are all information documented by socially engaged photographers. “When we look at, for instance, situations like in the jungle of Calais, the situation of the refugees coming into Greece, and the number of people who are dying in the boats, we wouldn’t know about these things if there weren’t media or photographers choosing to go there to show it”, says Nigel Dickinson.
Remember the photograph of the so-young Syrian boy, Aylen Kurdi, whose dead body lying on a Turkish beach stirred far more people about the terrible situation of refugees than any of the articles or “pamphlets” written before.
Because of that power, Nigel Dickinson decided to use his camera is to show subjects such as the excluded communities (Roma, Indigenous…), the people engaged in resistance against mainstream society (the Road Protesters, the beginning of the anti-globalization movement in England..), the effects of climate change and the meat industry, the Sharia Law in Nigeria or the people working in dump sites in Cambodia. His philosophy can be summed up in one sentence: “A lot of the communities that I work with are marginalized or in difficulty and don’t have a voice. What I do is to give them a voice.”
Caption: ??? Photo Credits: Nigel Dickinson
But giving a voice to people through concerned photography is not an easy task. The digital world raises new issues for committed photographers.
Engaging Documentary Photography in the Digital World
thanks to digital technology, nowadays, everybody can “take a picture” by pressing a button. “These days, the digital world has made access to making reasonable good images much easier. People are now encouraged to just use their iPhones or tablets or other things to take pictures” states Nigel Dickinson. The consequence: “The general quality of image making has gone down”. As well, as the prices. The democratization of smartphones, the massive use of the Internet and social network lead to a mass production and spreading of images taken by average individuals. By flooding the Internet with increasingly banal images, everyone can now tread on professional photojournalists’ toes, in some ways.
Compare with the photographs taken by non-professionals, the “artistic” dimension of professional photographs now rely on the concern of their authors. The “mixture of aesthetics, emotion and information”, that documentary photography conveys, allows professional photographs to be generally more efficient in appealing to people’s sensitivity.
Socially Engaged Photography: a Testimony which Transcends Time
If the history of concerned photography is not exempt of controversies and ethical issues, engaged photographers remain the great witnesses of our time, providing subjective visions through their camera lenses, and offering alternatives to traditional media coverage.
History is full of striking images by concerned photographs. Whether it is the picture of a young nude girl escaping a gas attack during the Vietnam War or the one showing a man falling from one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, some images are strongly attached to past events and remain part of our collective consciousness.
Despite the challenges brought about by digital technology, as long as there will be photographers with the same philosophy as Nigel Dickinson, concerned photography acting as social documentary will never stop revealing the world through its peoples and their actions and attitudes.